Why Smart Leaders Do Dumb Things

dark side of leadershipAnd Why Smart Organizations Do Dumb Things as Well

Many (many) years ago, I was introduced to an idea that continues to be a major theme for me. It was the theme of "dark-side" behaviors, or the dark side of leadership. (Click here for a short review of the book, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership.) There were two main ideas in this dark side theme.

First - there are certain behaviors that are simply wrong. They bring harm to the one who acts out, and they harm the people and organization around them. Like narcissism, or being passive-aggressive, or paranoid. There were five primary dark side behaviors. This was very helpful.

Second - but even more helpful was the concept that every strength has a dark side "under-belly" to it. The dark side of a strength is seen when a strength is SO DOMINANT that other counter-balancing strengths are not present. And, there are always repercussions when one strength dominates to the exclusion of complementary strengths. I will give you one brief example. 

Optimism is certainly a valuable quality. I love the language of vital optimism and believe it is essential for emotionally healthy leadership (what Goleman calls resonant leadership). Even a quick look through of major leadership books, and you will find agreement that leaders need a vital optimism if they are to be successful. But, if that is all a leader has, and if the leader defaults to that instinctively and quickly, the leader can become little more than a cheerleader for a team that is going downhill and losing.

Trust me, I saw this in action at many football games where my team was losing and the cheerleaders were going about their customary vital optimism. A perky DE-FENSE cheer, after the opposing team has scored 7 consecutive touchdowns, and is headed toward number 8, is just kind of pathetic...  If a leader does not have a critical realism that addresses the "brutal facts," their positivity will turn out to be harmful. Pick any strength, isolate it, intensify it, default to it, and you will see the dark side.

I have certainly seen the dark side of my own strengths. One of them being my "pace setting" approach to everything. Life, ministry, and leadership as the endless pursuit of ever greater BHAGs has a dark under belly. This is vital self-awareness work leaders need to do.


The Anxious Organization, dumb leadership, anxietyAnother related, but distinct theme is that of Dumb Leadership. I recently read a great book. The Anxious Organization: Why Smart Companies do Dumb Things. This is a book I highly recommend. Although I also suggest you first read, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Friedman. Both books will help you understand why leaders, team and entire organizations do dumb things.

Hint: It is not because they are dumb! It is because they are anxious!!!

This is a profoundly useful insight about human nature and the way systems work. If you are a leader, you owe it to your organization to become fluent in understanding what anxiety does to you, and what it does to your team. You need to learn the way of "the non-anxious presence" so you can facilitate the same thing among your partners and through the system itself.

Both books have deep ideas, but they are presented in very accessible and useful ways.


Brian K. Rice
Leadership ConneXtions International